Four-Fields Again: Finding a Way to Make it Work

Back in the fall, I “questioned the feasability”:/2005/08/23/intro-courses-and-the-viability-of-four-fields/ of the four-field approach in a “Cégep”: -level course. My problems were largely based on the fact that I had always imitated what my colleagues were doing: starting with 4 weeks of physical anthropology, including physical evolution, our relationship with other primates and modern human variation, then 2 weeks of archaeology. This left me with very little time to cover a large body of knowledge of cultural anthropology, including one week of linguistics, specifically sociolinguistics.

In my previous post, I said that I would try to start backwards. In other words, instead of ending with globalisation and cutting a lot of it out because I was too tight for time at the end, I was going to start with that topic and work my way back to the past. Well, I didn’t wind up doing that. But I did come up with a way of teaching my intro course that pleases me while still fulfilling the four-field approach.

What I’m doing now is integrating the four fields at every step. Instead of spending chunks of the course focusing on one field at a time, I go through the course focussing on topics and, for each topic, I examine the contributions of the various subfields. So I started the semester simply talking about culture. What is it (definitions and descriptions)? What does it do (shape our assumptions)? How do we learn about it in the present and in the past (this is where the subfields come in)?

Now, at week 5 of the semester, I’m moving on to specific aspects of culture such as worldview and religion. Again, we will look at the topic in general while specifying how the different subfields contribute to our understanding of it. And so forth for gender and sexuality, economic systems, political structures, etc. I’m therefore doing things a bit differently than my colleagues, most of whom are more experienced than I am, but I’m quite comfortable with going out on a limb.

I’m pretty sure that there are other people out there who teach their intro courses in a similar fashion and that I didn’t invent this method. I’m curious to hear comments by anyone who uses a similar approach or has taken a course with this approach. Since this is my first time teaching the course this way, I’m anxious to see whether it makes a difference in student comprehension and interest. In my two intro courses this semester, it seems to be working well in terms of catching student interest but I’m not sure if it’s the approach itself or merely the fact that I was able to jump into topics that I’m genuinely passionate about earlier in the semester and therefore win over the students sooner with my own enthusiasm, something that often took much more time when I had to go through the evolution stuff (not that it’s not important, just that I have to fake a lot of my enthusiasm while teaching it). Once I start seeing test results, it will give me a better idea of actual student comprehension.

6 thoughts on “Four-Fields Again: Finding a Way to Make it Work

  1. Nancy … neat stuff and thanks for sharing. The class sounds great and extremely useful for conveying a holistic picture of what anthropology is. How are you managing a textbook? Or are you? Do you have any recommendations in the area of readings or course materials for a course designed like that?

  2. We use a custom edition of Ember, Ember and Peregrine in which we hand picked our chapters. We had all agreed that we could cover human evolution with the help of hand-outs and links to web sites (such as Palomar’s tuturial page) so in that sense, it has worked out.

    If I had to pick a textbook “as is”, I might go with an intro to cultural anth and supplement with hand-outs and articles. I’d have to hunt around.

  3. This course sounds great and really exciting for the students. Its great to try new things, especially before you have had time to become entrenched into what seem to be the accepted ways of doing tbings. If the class `gets it’, its working.

  4. I found Cultural Anthropology – A Problem-Based Approach by Richard Robbins useful for a topic-based approach. This is published by Thomson-Wadsworth ( ISBN: 0534640745.

    The topic list is:
    1. Culture and Meaning.
    2. The Meaning of Progress.
    3. The Construction of the Nation-State.
    4. The Social and Cultural Construction of Reality.
    5. Patterns of Family Relations.
    6. The Cultural Construction of Identity.
    7. The Cultural Construction of Social Hierarchy.
    8. The Cultural Construction of Violent Conflict.

    Students seem to enjoy this approach. My students at an arts and media college (no anthro majors!) greatly enjoyed the discussions of the nation-state and violent conflict. They did say that the transition from the nation-state to the social and cultural construction of reality was difficult — like jumping off a cliff, one student said.

    However, this text has nothing on evolution, physical anthropology, or archaeology, so you’d be left using handouts, web sites, or another text for that material. On the other hand, you’re doing that anyhow.

  5. Thanks Kate. I have a desk copy of it and actually like it quite a bit. For some reason, we ruled it out . . .it might have been a cost thing. But I certainly like the approach of the text.

  6. I’m currently teaching a 4 fields course using Michael Alan Park’s, Introducing Anthropology, McGraw-Hill. It’s going pretty well, and it’s nice to have textbook chapters to assign to prepare students for the mad gallop through all the topics one needs to cover. Park’s approach is similar to Nancy’s, when he can–bringing the four fields to bear on a topic.

    I’ve used Robbins successfully in the past, but not for 4-fields. His globalization book is very good, too.

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